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Review: Roger Allam Stars in Seminar, Hampstead Theatre

03/10/2014 11:29 BST | Updated 03/12/2014 10:59 GMT

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Triple Olivier-Award winner Roger Allam is the star draw in Seminar, a surprisingly absorbing if somewhat unbelievable play about a bitter but famous novelist teaching a group of starry-eyed aspiring writers.

Roger Allam is on fine form as Leonard, a bitter, arrogant novelist whose best days are behind him and who is reduced to giving expensive private writing classes to those rich enough to afford his patronage.

The play is written by Theresa Rebeck and is a transfer from Broadway where Alan Rickman played the difficult and belligerent teacher. Her play is a bit of a love letter to writing, how hard it is and how fine the balance is between truth and pretension. And there's plenty of withering one-liners to generate the laughs such as "Life is complicated. People are complicated. If you can't figure that out, you'll never be much of a writer."

But though the word play is sharp, the plot is very thin. And it is therefore somewhat ironic that in a play about creative writing, it is the writing that is weak.

There are no real stakes of any consequence at jeopardy for any of these characters. So what if none of them become successful writers? None of them are going to lose their homes or respect from their parents if they don't. There's nothing at risk for anyone, which makes this play incredibly hollow.

Also, every character is a cliché, whether it's the cantankerous teacher as jealous of his students as he is insulting, or it's the trust fund spoilt rich kid in her Upper West Side apartment, the sex-obsessed beauty who's happy to screw her way to the top, or whether it's the not-as-rich kid with a chip on his shoulder about his lack of advantage.

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I have seen many plays with stereotypes work. The issue here comes from these persons then starting to act out of character, not performing actions that should be the natural next step.

You see, the theme of this play really is, what are you prepared to do for success? There are those who want to work for it, to succeed on merit, like spoilt rich kid Kate (played superbly by Charity Wakefield). She wants desperately to impress Leonard with her writing, only she's never worked for anything in her life.

But will she learn from the other woman in the class sex-kitten Izzy (played with real vibrancy by Rebecca Grant) who beds Leonard, in her eyes a realistic necessity to succeed? Only Izzy then promptly shacks up with loser not-as-rich-kid Martin (Bryan Dick), which makes no sense as he has no contacts and can't get her anywhere.

And the way these four young writers interact with Leonard, this famed novelist, isn't believable. Right from the off they are in his face, giving him backchat and hurling back insults as soon as he starts to tear up their work. Really? I mean, wouldn't you be a little bit more in awe by him to start with?

So given these faults - and they are profound - it's somewhat surprising that this play does keep you absorbed for the two-hour running time. How is that?

Well, for one, the acting is superb. It really is excellent. Roger Allam obviously. Look, the guy's so talented he could make the phone book sound like Shakespeare and here he wrings out every last drop from the script. His Leonard is arrogant, yes, but Roger Allam's steady reveal that maybe this bitterness is born from a need to shake his students to reality rather than to patronise them is intriguing. Is his absolute cruelty a form of kindness?

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But immense credit must also go to the four actors who play his students - Bryan Dick, Charity Wakefield, Rebecca Grant and Oliver Hembrough. They are lumbered with clichés but bring real energy to the play and there's plenty of development of sub-text and silent conversations as secrets are revealed and power balances shift.

And the main character here, which is Kate, is an active protagonist. She does take matters into her own hands after Leonard rips apart her book that she's spent six years working on. Some of her decisions and choices are a little unbelievable, and the supposed twists in the plot you can see coming a mile off, but nevertheless at least she keeps driving the plot forward and forcing the status quo to change.

The direction comes from Terry Johnson, who wowed last year with his tight Sigmund Freud/Salvador Dali farce Hysteria in the same theatre. This year's play is not as dynamic but there are some good pace changes, from the slow, long silences the creative writing classes fall in to as Leonard paces the room weighing up the latest efforts from his students to the snappy fast-paced bickering that the classes descend into as Leonard gives his sneering feedback.

So how to look at Seminar overall? I guess it depends whether you're in a cup half empty or cup half full kind of mood. If it's the former, you'll be wondering why on earth a great such as Roger Allam agreed to be in this play. However if it's the latter, you'll enjoy the fact that you'll bear witness to some superb acting that prevents the lacklustre writing from taking over.

Either way though, there's enough here to keep you entertained for two hours, though it'll probably fall pretty quickly from your mind soon after.

Hampstead Theatre, London to November 1, 2014

Image credits:

1. Roger Allam as Leonard in SEMINAR. Photo © Alastair Muir

2. Charity Wakefield as Kate and Bryan Dick as Martin in SEMINAR. Photo © Alastair Muir

3. Rebecca Grant as Izzy in SEMINAR. Photo © Alastair Muir